Critical vs. Popular

by

Rachel Seigel

As we gear up for a busy fall publishing season, we naturally start thinking about the fast-approaching awards season for books. A week or two ago, the longlist for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize was announced (the most prestigious Canadian literary award for fiction), and on September 11, the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize (The prize, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008 after launching in 1969, aims to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.) was announced, and those are just the tip of the iceberg! In just about a month, the National Book Awards finalists will be announced, with the winner being announced in November. In Ontario, the shortlists for the k-12 provincial reading programs (fondly referred to as the “Tree Awards because each of the programs is named after a tree) will be announced in October, and in November, the Governor General Award for Literature, and the Canadian Children’s Book Centre awards are announced at a black-tie gala that is growing in prestige and popularity each year.

Recently, my boss and I also had a discussion about review journals, where he asked me to keep a running list of starred reviews (in addition to prize nominees/winners) to post on the company website for our library customers. This got me to thinking about the two separate categories we tend to place books (much like movies) in- Critical-Authors/books that get lots of review attention, but goes largely unnoticed by the masses vs Popular- books like 50 Shades of Grey which everybody is reading, but are far from critical darlings.

According to my boss, a starred review, or being on an award shortlist will guarantee an automatic sale for some libraries regardless of what it is. As a buyer, I have to be aware of and pay attention to the various awards in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., and I mentally classify my selections as a teaching book (one that is literary but probably won’t be a popular choice) or a popular book (books that kids are certain to enjoy but won’t be winning any literary awards). At our trade shows, I offer our customers a mixture of both, and while the “popular with kids” titles fly off of our tables, I find that the more “literary” or teachable titles need to be hand-sold, and often, the customers are hardly aware of- or influenced by reviews and nominations.

With the growing influence of bloggers in the book community, and the ever increasing Social Media presence by publishers, what is our actual determining factor in whether or not to purchase a book by a new or less-familiar author? In my case, I find I’m largely influenced by recommendations from the friends, the Twitterverse, and blogs that I trust. I do take note of reviews and awards, but I’m much more interested in what non-industry people think! What about you? Do you count on reviews to help you decide what to read? Are you swayed by a starred review? Does it’s presense on an award longlist/shortlist spur you to go out and purchase it? And as prestigious as an actual win can be for an author/publisher, does knowing that it won an award make you more interested in reading it?

I’d love to know what you all think, so chime in with your thoughts on what (other than familiarity with the author/series) makes you decide to buy a book either for yourself, your library, your students, or your kids?

Rachel Seigel is the K-12 buyer at wholesaler S&B Books in Mississauga, Ontario. She also maintains a personal blog at http://readingtimbits.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @rachelnseigel.

13 Responses to Critical vs. Popular

  1. Adriana Sep 12 2012 at 3:10 am #

    I’m definitely more influenced by recommendations of people I know! I very rarely just pick up a book these days unless I’ve heard of it or have seen its goodreads page. Usually, I can get my recs from here or Sooz’ blog, but if I’ve read everything recommended by both (it has happened…) I go to my current favorite authors’ pages an see what they’re reading.

    One thing that turns me off is seeing a starred review from an author I don’t like on the cover of a book… Or when they say, “if you like X, you’ll like this!” it just sounds like you’re narrowing your audience instead of broadening.

    • RachelSeigel
      RachelSeigel Sep 12 2012 at 11:27 am #

      Great point! Publishers see the comparison as an effective marketing tool, but I’m not particuarly swayed by that either!

  2. Daphne Sep 12 2012 at 6:28 am #

    I always go by friends’ recommendations instead of critical books. Winning an award does make me interested in the book though, and I usually get as far as reading the synopsis but usually decide that it’s not for me (genre-wise or anything else). I have picked up a few award winners that were great, but usually because they appealed to me as books, first and foremost, not as award-winners.

    • RachelSeigel
      RachelSeigel Sep 12 2012 at 11:37 am #

      Same with me! I used to joke that if it was an Oprah pick, I would deliberately not read it because her tastes weren’t mine.

  3. Leonicka Sep 12 2012 at 10:11 am #

    I like a mix of both. I only pay close attention to critical reviews/ award panels I trust and have agreed with in the past. Overall I pick up a book based on the cumulative buzz. If a book is on ALL the shortlist and/or ALL my friends are talking about it I’ll definitely read it.

  4. RachelSeigel
    RachelSeigel Sep 12 2012 at 11:40 am #

    Excellent way of selecting books! I’m like that too-if I’m seeing a lot of collective buzz, I make a point of reading it. I’ve discovered great books that way!

  5. Kateri Ransom Sep 12 2012 at 11:52 am #

    For me it is kind of based on genre. I consider my reading preference to be strongly in the fantasy genre, like classic magic, fairies, witches, gothic settings to urban ones alike. When I go into the book store this is what I will pretty much always gravitate towards. But as far as other genres and subcultures it is different, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that, though I LOVE reading, I’m not fast at it. I almost always take my time with books (few exceptions like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games etc.), and consequentially my reading list piles up as if the Rocky Mountains moved into my bedroom. This means when it comes to other genres/subcultures I tend to look to blogs/friends of whose oppinion I regard highly and get thier advise on what they thought was a good read and why. As far as the honor of medals/awards go, I would definately say that is a driving force in getting me to read it. I want to ask, why is that shiny little circle on the cover? What about this book makes it worthy of such a thing? And I want to read it to find out if I agree with that decision or not. Let’s say for instance, being that I’ve been staying clear of vampire novels for quite some time now (not just because of Twilight, mind), I see a vampire novel with one of those medals in a bookstore. I will almost definately read it then!

    • Rachel Seigel Sep 12 2012 at 7:03 pm #

      Great philosophy! If there is buzz around a book outside of a genre I’m comfortable with or typically enjoy, I will rely on friends and blogs to advise me whether or not it’s worth the read.

  6. Erin Bowman
    Erin Bowman Sep 12 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    Several “starred” reviews will get me to pick up a novel I’d otherwise been lukewarm about. But what gets me more than anything is word-of-mouth and gushing reviews from friends/reader’s I trust. If enough people are saying they love something, and I know I love 50% of what they usually read, I can’t NOT pick up that novel.

    • Rachel Seigel Sep 12 2012 at 7:04 pm #

      Me too, Erin! In fact, then I feel anxious to finish whatever I’m reading so I can get to it ASAP!

  7. Alexa (Loves Books) Sep 12 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    I definitely rely on reviews from people I trust (mostly bloggers) to decide what to read next. It’s not necessarily only starred reviews or award-winning or nominated for award books that I turn to, although having high ratings might sway my opinion a little. I generally like seeing (a) what the story is about and (b) what people with tastes similar to mine thought of it. Mixed reviews (good/bad all at the same time) also definitely grab my attention.

    In the end, it’s down to personal appeal. Does the story sound appealing? Is the first page interesting enough to grab me (and this only works out if I’m checking it out in a bookstore)? Those two questions are usually my go-to qualifications for buying a book.

    • Rachel Seigel Sep 12 2012 at 7:03 pm #

      And they should be the most important questions too! In the end, awards don’t matter if it’s not something you enjoy!

  8. Kris Sep 12 2012 at 10:36 pm #

    Probably about half of my reads come from my best friend, who reads along the same lines that I do. Other than that, I follow the continuation of series, and a few book blogs that post reviews — mostly blogs geared towards a particular genre that I like. These probably account for most of the books I buy for myself.

    One of my other friends has said to me that she won’t browse at the library because unless she picks a book specifically, she won’t end up reading it. Me on the other hand, I bring a bag to the library to carry all the books I end up going out with. I browse by title, cover, and genre sticker (you have to narrow it down somehow). Then I read the summary, and the first few pages. I don’t really pay attention to author blurbs on the cover. Sometimes a book has no summary and only reviews on the jacket, and that’s very frustrating, because if I want to find out what it’s about I have to go to a computer — those usually go back on the shelves. I don’t look up awards but an award sticker will catch my eye and I’ll spend an extra minute skimming the beginning, maybe.

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